Interview: Francesca Mepham, FEMM Theatre

FEMM Theatre is a new company producing fresh and exciting theatre by female artists, whose debut production comes to the Bread and Roses Theatre next month. No One Wants A Pretty Girl is a collection of six contemporary female monologues, written by FEMM Theatre’s founder Francesca Mepham.

“It was such a spontaneous decision; I knew I wanted to produce my new play and thought it was time I created my own theatre company,” explains Fran. “The initials of my full name happen to be FEMM, so it was fate that I wanted the theatre company to be one that supports and promotes female creatives. This isn’t to say we are not supporting male creatives, quite the opposite; we want to promote equality and diversity in the arts. I want to support other females, as in this industry that is so important – females showing solidarity to fellow females. You can never have too much kindness!”

Although she’s new to running a theatre company, the multitalented Fran is certainly no stranger to working in the arts: “Well my career’s definitely been varied, which I absolutely love. It’s involved performing, writing, reviewing and PRing! Performing began when I was very young; I was a member of Beck Youth Theatre, who were so supportive of what I wanted to do, which was to simply be creative. I graduated with a BMus Hons degree and I’ve been very fortunate and performed as an events/session vocalist ever since.

“I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started reviewing theatre productions a couple of years ago, that I realised I wanted to explore theatre writing and acting again. You could say I just dived straight in and went for it, producing my own plays and now I have my own theatre company! Also, I have a blog called Frantastic View, that aims to inspire other creatives and give an honest look at life in the arts. And I’m Press Manager for Orzu Arts, Britain’s first Central Asian Theatre Company, so I’m always immersing myself in the arts industry somehow!”

Unsurprisingly in such a long and varied career, there have been a lot of highlights. “I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful creatives want to work with me as a writer and a performer,” says Fran. “Performing at Edinburgh is a real highlight, and I’ve recently been chosen for a night of female playwrights produced by Instinct Theatre at The Bread and Roses Theatre. The support for FEMM Theatre has been a huge highlight of 2017. I’ve also recently written for NewsRevue which has been a lot of fun. In the last few weeks I’ve signed to Helen McWilliams Management Agency which has been wonderful, to have that faith in me as an artist.”

No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written by Fran and directed by Laura Clifford – will be performed in its entirety for the first time at the Bread and Roses in Clapham on 16th October. “It’s a collection of six monologues – Should, Jade Jacket and Trousers, Side B*tch, My Daddy Is Mexican, No Shame and Saturday Night – each performed by one of the six-strong female cast,” says Fran. “Each monologue explores the theme of having a secret behind the smile, an inner sadness which we can all identify. There are themes of heartbreak, loneliness, prejudice, to name just a few; there is no sugar coating, just a rawness from each character. This is life and even in sadness there is beauty.


“I wrote Should for Theatrefullstop in late 2015 at 2am for their Monologue Monday, which they were filming for their blog, and I continued writing monologues for the collection – initially three, those being Jade Jacket and Trousers and Side B*tch which they recorded for their podcast late last year, with actress Charlotte Hunt. It was actually Charlotte who said how much her friends she worked with at a call centre, who were also actresses, had enjoyed reading the monologues, as there aren’t that many contemporary monologues for women in their 20s-30s that are relatable out there.

“Then in March of this year, Should was performed at Instinct Theatre’s Scratch The Surface at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, directed by Laura Clifford and performed by Tayo Elesin. I realised that from its warm reaction, I had to write more and make the monologue collection into a full length show, with Laura’s amazing direction. Big thanks to Theatrefullstop and Instinct Theatre, two female-led theatre tour de forces, who have been so supportive of No One Wants A Pretty Girl.”

One of Fran’s primary goals with FEMM Theatre is to promote diversity of all kinds in theatre and the arts. “It’s so important as diversity equals equality; theatre needs to give all creatives equal opportunities,” she says. “Glass ceilings need to be shattered and the industry needs to be aware of theatre makers that need that extra encouragement and support. We all need to support each other in theatre. With FEMM, we put our ethos in to action and cast BAME actors as a priority. That’s what needs to be done – a little less conversation and more positive action in the arts. We also want to address the problem of ageism, especially towards actresses in theatre.”

And finally, to anyone – particularly women – thinking about getting into playwriting, Fran has a few words of advice: “Do it! Literally go for it, be bold, be brave and just be yourself.”

Book now for No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses on 16th October.

Interview: Jay Taylor, The Acedian Pirates

“Funny. Surreal. Savage,” says actor-turned-writer Jay Taylor, when given three words to sum up his debut play, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014, and opens at Theatre503 on 26th October. “The Acedian Pirates is a dark comic-drama about military occupation, the moral conundrum of armed intervention and the mythology of warfare,” he adds, when allowed a few more.


What led Jay to choose this weighty subject for his first play? “I wanted to write something about the way people mythologise conflict and also about man’s obsession with war,” he explains. “It seemed to me that Helen of Troy was the ultimate idol and myth, so I wanted to offer a radically different perspective on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. This play was intended to investigate belief, propaganda and the moral dilemma of intervention; all themes that seem very relevant considering the amount of instability and conflict in the world today.

“I hope it challenges a few perceptions and attitudes towards the military: their recruitment policy, their moral responsibility and their genuine intentions when invading or occupying another territory. But this is not intended to be a condemnation of the military or a pacifist diatribe. The crux of the play is the moral dilemma of intervention; for example, what would have happened if the allies had not intervened in the Second World War in order to defeat fascism?”

After 10 years as an actor, Jay’s finding it fascinating to approach the creative process from the other side: “I’m quite used to being in an audition environment, but being on the other side of the table for our casting process was a hugely informative experience. And being in rehearsals is fantastic – the actors are able to investigate their characters with great specificity and turn them into fully realised people. Plus, they’re not letting me off the hook with regard to the characters’ desires and objectives, which forces me to rethink certain aspects of the play. It’s brilliant.

“There are many transferable skills between acting and writing. Essentially they’re both about critical thinking and determining what characters, choices and attitudes best serve the story you are trying to tell. Acting also gives you a good ear for dialogue, as well as a desire to make every character as dynamic as possible. I’ve played plenty of characters that are purely there to exposit and give information to the protagonist. That sort of writing is lazy, so I try my best not to do that!”


Jay’s over the moon to see his work performed at Theatre503. “It’s thrilling. Theatre503 rightly has the reputation of being one of the most bold, ambitious and innovative theatres in London. For a theatre with such limited space and resources, their output is extraordinary. I’m delighted that my first play has been programmed there; I think it’s worth mentioning that I sent The Acedian Pirates direct to the theatre, through their unsolicited script submission portal. Their resident literary manager and dramaturg Steve Harper has offered invaluable support to me as a writer – this production wouldn’t be happening without him.”

The Acedian Pirates takes place in a lighthouse, with a set designed by Helen Coyston. “Helen’s been a fantastic addition to the creative team,” says Jay. “Having only seen the model box and costume design drawings, I think her design is going to be deeply atmospheric, offering a pressure cooker environment for the characters to inhabit. I’m personally looking forward to seeing how we cram six actors, a lighthouse, the moon, the sea and some pretty significant special effects all onto the diminutive stage at Theatre503! But we will and it will obviously be deeply cool and brilliant… I hope!”

Finally, what advice does Jay have for someone thinking about getting into writing, but not sure where to begin? “People often say to write what you know, but my advice is to be as bold, inventive and imaginative as you can. I love nothing more than going to the theatre and seeing something subversive, different and theatrical. I feel like our addiction to television box sets has stifled creativity and made theatrical exuberance unfashionable.

“Don’t write what someone else tells you to write or what you think might please someone. Think with your inner child; write about something that inspires you and something you really believe in.”

The Acedian Pirates is at Theatre503 from 26th October-19th November.

What qualifies someone to write about theatre?

Earlier today, an article was published by The Stage in which producer Danielle Tarento was quoted as saying of theatre bloggers, “This is a massive generalisation, but a lot of people are not ‘proper writers’. They do not have the intellectual background or historical background or time to know what they are writing about.”

And then Twitter exploded.

My natural instinct is always to give people the benefit of the doubt in cases like this, ever since I was 18 and the local paper quoted me as saying my A-Levels had been easy (definitely not what I said) – so I naturally assumed the quote had been taken out of context. And there’s a good chance it was, particularly since in the same breath Danielle Tarento acknowledges the massive role bloggers play in spreading the word to a wider audience.

But that hasn’t stopped people getting upset about it, and the fact that the article was published at all seems like as good a reason as any to pause and ask: what qualifies someone to write about theatre?

I don’t come from a writing background, as evidenced by the noticeable absence of the novel I’ve been trying to write for years. I don’t come from a performance background either, unless you count a few appearances in school nativity plays and a brief spell in a drama group which I’m pretty sure only ever managed one production (I can’t remember what it was; all I know is we all said, “He’s not there!” a lot, and I was supposed to have a German accent). This worries me, because in addition to all the professional critics out there, it often feels like most other theatre bloggers are either students or practitioners of theatre. This, in my head, means they must know a lot more about the subject than I do, so I’m at a double disadvantage before I’ve even started.

I fell into theatre blogging totally by accident – it began as an occasional topic on a blog about stuff that makes me happy, and grew from there. Next thing I knew, I was reviewing regularly for three other sites, and eventually decided it was about time I started a specialist theatre blog of my own. And here we are.

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150(ish) reviews later, here are a few things I know:

– Like most theatre bloggers, I’ve been going to the theatre my whole life, which means I have 30 years of experience as an audience member. True, I’ve only been reviewing for just over a year, and I’m too scared to look back at some of my early reviews because I’m sure they were very, very bad. But the only way to improve is to keep trying, and I like to think I’ve got at least a bit better over the past 12 months.

– Like most theatre bloggers, I have a full-time job to pay the bills. So I don’t have a lot of free time to work on reviews… but I make time. I stay up late, I use my lunch break and my commute, and the other day I sat in a restaurant with my family and ignored them all for a good five or ten minutes while I finished up a review – which I later rewrote because I hated the thought that I’d rushed it and not done a good job.

– Like most theatre bloggers, I don’t review because someone’s paying me. I do it because I want to; because I want to support theatre and share something I love with others. (Although if anyone wants to pay me, that’s totally okay. Just putting it out there.)

– Like most theatre bloggers, I sometimes worry my reviews aren’t intellectual enough, or that I’m somehow “doing it wrong”. But then I remember I’m not writing an academic essay; I’m writing for people like me, who enjoy a good show and might want to go and see something they may otherwise not have heard about. And it’s my blog, so as long as the review is honest and accurate, I can’t really mess it up.

So, what qualifies someone to write about theatre? Personally, I think passion, dedication and having an opinion are worth a lot more than using big words or having every comma in the right place (which is saying something, because I really care about correct punctuation). And if today is anything to go by, the theatre blogging community is overflowing with all these things.

The battle between bloggers and critics is, apparently, an endless one. It raises its head regularly, usually on Twitter, and everyone gets outraged every time. It is unfair to make the sweeping statement that bloggers aren’t proper writers, especially since some of us only plucked up the courage to start applying that label to ourselves very recently. But actions speak louder than words (or should that be words speak louder than tweets…? I don’t know), so let’s put our energy into proving our worth, by blogging on with pride, improving and learning as we go, and giving it 100% like we always do.